53 at 53 – My 1st Ultra Marathon

Yesterday I attended the Outrace Trail Running Film Festival and was reminded of a fascination that began while running my very 1st Ultra in June; people actually run 100 kilometers all in the same day? Why was I actually getting emotional watching total strangers on a screen complete those distances? The Niagara Ultra was my 1st ‘live’ exposure to this distance and it’s a take-away that won’t seem to go away.

I’ve had an extraordinarily busy year of adventures! My last blog report left off at the record-setting, blazing hot Ottawa Marathon. Let me continue with the burning hot Niagara Ultra Marathon in June.

I had one goal for 2016, the Ottawa Marathon, but as the date got closer and things were looking positive, my mind trailed to new stretch goals. I refused to let myself register for the Niagara Ultra but kept checking the spots left on their website. When it got to ‘5 spots remaining’ for the 50km I broke down and secretly registered. I was justifying that I would kick myself if it sold out yet, also very hesitant that I might have just jinxed my ‘3rd times the charm’ completion for my unfinished business goal. Luckily it didn’t.

My audience of supporters were split on my even attempting to run Ottawa again especially given I now sported a knee brace for all runs. To hear that I was going to charge forward with my 1st Ultra 3 weeks (less a day) after completing Ottawa, that raised some eyebrows. I might not ever get the chance again and I was already trained. I had to try.

phone-download-july-1-2016-pre-russia-200Several years ago my sister and brother in law retired to Niagara on the Lake. In doing so, they created the most amazing refuge for their city folk family. I could not imagine a better place to take on my 1st Ultra so we left the city Friday afternoon and drove directly to the Scout Hall for my race kit pickup. Since I began running away races 4 years ago, I had come to the realization if I were ever appointed Queen for a day, all races would go on a Saturday. There is truly nothing worse in my world then going away to a race, especially to wine country, and having to spend 24+ hours prior to a race, not drinking the nectars of the region. I’ve had to do it 5+ times now and it is horrid. Well, the Niagara Ultra must have an equally smart monarch since this was my first Saturday race. Let me tell you how motivating it was to know I would have a whole day of naughty rewards after the race with family. Now, I just needed to earn the rewards. 50km here I come.

phone-download-july-1-2016-pre-russia-206I felt great leading up to the race so I decided 50km didn’t make sense. I am 53, another 3km wouldn’t kill me and ’53km at 53′ sounded so much better. It would provide my sherpa a few extra hours of sleep. I left early and ran the few kilometres to the start as warm-up. I loved the small town feel of this race. Everyone was so helpful and friendly and there seemed to be no ‘eliteness’ amongst the runners who could be running any of the 4 race distances that day from a half marathon to 100km. Yup, 100km. I wandered the start area looking for those wearing the 100km bibs. I needed to see who they were, how they looked, their pre-race prep. I discovered they were all ages, all sizes and sparcely geared. They clearly knew something a lot of us 50km’ers (with all our water belts and camelbaks) didn’t. I was happy to know they were running the same route as me, only running it twice. Twice! And they had to complete it in 14 hours to get the medal – Ouch!

Knowing there would be runners out there for 14 hours really helped me deal with my goal. For one, it meant that I probably didn’t really have a time constraint on completing my 50. Secondly, there would always be runners behind me. Third, it became my entertainment for the day, like a live show that would serve as a distraction for 7 hours. I tried to memorize all the faces of the 100km runners. I wondered how they would look at the end?

Off go the start horns. No fan fair, just start running. I already had a new friend to distract me for a few miles through the park and around a fort until they wanted a walk break. I knew I had to plow through as many miles as possible before it got crazy hot and was quite enjoying a bit of refuge under the trees. Then we came out to the road and one of the biggest hills I think I’ve ever had to run, how could I not have considered we were running the Escarpment as we ran from Niagara on the Lake to Niagara Falls? Duh! There would be a total ascent of 766 feet I just discovered on google, of course it felt worse in 90 degrees while running.phone-download-july-1-2016-pre-russia-117

I got myself to the 20km mark before the heat was wearing me down. I was excited when we began the descent into Niagara Falls. After we passed the turnaround point for the marathoners there were fewer runners and the 100km runners were easier to pick out as they made their way back. They were all still looking like sleek pumas, fast paced, great running form and focused coming up the escarpment as we made our way down. Wow, do they have a long way to go. That really helped make my own distance less daunting and my fascination continued.

phone-download-july-1-2016-pre-russia-223Running along the gorge was beautiful as I began to discover the runners were getting mixed in with the pedestrians since there was no official race route. We ran amongst the masses getting strange looks from all the tourists as they noticed our race bibs. We were all quite focused on the halfway station at this point and it seemed to take forever to get to it as the masses started to diminish and way on the other end of the Falls finally appeared an umbrella. It was further than it looked as we had to run into the road to avoid the people and run onto the sidewalks to avoid the cars. I actually thought I was lost at one point but there weren’t really other options so it was kind of impossible to get lost. Several runners were taking a break, adjusting their shoes, seeking medical attention or enjoying the jujubes, cookies and pop. I signed in on a register rather then blipping over a pace mat. Was entertained by, but not really comfortable with, the station choices just yet thinking it might upset my stomach. I stuffed ice into my top and put cold sponges under my straps to try and cool down. It was really hot! I was halfway, now I could count down the miles to the finish.

Do you think I could leave Niagara Falls without some pictures? I was able to get some tourists to help me with some halfway pictures. I sent a quick picture and text to my most loyal cheerleader, Jeff, as evidence of my timing and began the journey back to Niagara on the Lake. I am always renewed at the halfway point and usually get a wee bit faster, that is until that escarpment hill struck and the blazing heat forced me to walk. It was going to be a long road home.


As I walked most of the hill I vowed to run for a few kilometers once I hit the top. I managed to run a few meters then changed my goal to 5 more trees then changed it again to sidewalk cracks. I realized I was pretty much going to be walking the last 20km of the race. I was feeling light-headed, the heat was starting to take me down. I began popping all the sugar and water I had on me.

Okay, so if I’m not going to be able to run long stints, I am going to set a pace for walking under 9 minute km’s. It was actually pretty fast and it felt better on my hips then walking slow. What I find with slow walking is you lose your posture and form but if you just step up your pace you are physically and mentally in a better place. No looking down, keep your head up, don’t slouch and keep pushing. There were pit stops every 5km and they were the only stops I allowed myself. I also began taking advantage of all the goodies, even the pop and it seemed to help. All of the volunteers were just awesome! They wanted to know how you were feeling, they were ready with a smile and so willing to help anyway they could. Thank you!

I was happy to say there were many in front of me and many behind me so I was in a pretty joyous place knowing I was going to complete this race. I was able to participate in a silent version of cat and mouse with all the bums in front of me. Each new bum was a win, sometimes they passed me, sometimes I would notice a face approaching me very quickly and that was always the face of a focused ultra runner working on the 2nd loop of their 100km day. The 1st one I saw was a strong young woman, she was in the lead and I quickly tried to yell out encouragement as she raced passed. It was quite a while before another face was running toward me but when it appeared I was happy to see it was yet another strong woman. Then a progression of men mixed in with more women. Around the 3/4 mark I passed a man walking and asked how he was doing. He said he just turned himself around, this would be a DNF (Did Not Finish) for him. He realized he wasn’t going to make the 100km cutoff time so he may as well head back to the finish. I am sure it happened to a lot of people across all the distances that day, I am sure it is something that is a regular occurrence in the 100km distance. I had to keep my pace so we parted and continued with my singing and wildly fast walk dancing.

The pit stops seemed to become agonizing far apart. There also seemed to be more people laying in the grass around them as the race continued. If I sat down?! … I would have nothing to do with stopping, grabbed a drink, filled my hands with candies and kept on moving.

phone-download-july-1-2016-pre-russia-230Part of the journey weaving along the escarpment intersected with a Laura Secord 25km hike that my sister and brother in law were doing the same day. Clearly there were many spectators and horse drawn vehicles enjoying this event, the runners in contrast just didn’t seem to fit but made for some great photo opportunities.

Finally, oh finally, I reached the grassy park again. I remembered it only being a few kilometers at the start. I was wrong! It seemed to take forever to reach the Fort again then the curves through the park went on and on and on with volunteers encouragingly lying about almost being done. Where the hell was the finish? I need to see it.

I could begin to hear music. Then around a row of trees I could see the finish banner way off in the distance, I could not flipping believe I made it, but I hadn’t yet. I decided to hoot and holler my way into the final stage with my arms in the arm forcing everyone to cheer me to the finish. It worked, the picnic’ers and finishers relishing in their recovery sat up (or stood where possible) and started cheering, clapping and yelling. I was trying desperately to reach the one bum ahead of me, trying to sprint, happily making the banner bigger and bigger until the announcer could see my Bib # and called my name to the finish. 53km. Ultra Marathoner. I earned the title, the medal, the free pizza and beer and the hugs.

phone-download-july-1-2016-pre-russia-387Jeff was at the finish taking it all in. Much to my surprise, one of our friends Deb was in Niagara that weekend so she came to watch me finish. It really warmed my heart to see them both. There really isn’t much like having the support of those you care about as you achieve a big goal. I appreciate it’s not easy to be a cheerleader for such a long race. The timing is never easy and there is often many hours of waiting. It made my experience so real having people I care about there to watch me finish. Thank you!

I actually felt awesome. Of course, I started tightening up quickly as soon as I stopped after 7+ hours of big effort. I went back to the finish line and did jump shots I felt so good. I knew this could be a once in a lifetime event for me. It was a big challenge for sure but I was so very happy that I took on the goal.

So that first puma who passed me running her 100km was Julie Hamulecki, she ended up winning with a time of 8:41 (5:14/km pace for 100km). Cassie Smith, the next puma placed second with a time of 10:02 (6:02/km pace for 100km). The final 100km racer to cross the finish line in 13:53:57 – he was over 65 years! Proving age is just a number, so is distance it appears.

In the end it is all just training! So the real question for me is do I have what it takes to train for 100km? Yes. Do I want to make all the sacrifices necessary to train for 100km? Probably not. I will not be one of those people to say ‘I can’t do that’, I know that I can do whatever I put my mind to. When I hear other people say they can’t it rings as defeatist negativity. All of the amazing 100km racers out there June 18th, showed us all it is possible. Thank you!  Once you see something though, you can’t un-see it. I wanted to race ONE Ultra Marathon, I thought I’d be happy with one. Maybe I will be.

The Niagara Ultra was one of my favourite races! Perhaps because it was my 1st Ultra, perhaps because in pulling off something I wasn’t sure I would do I discovered there is no end to the road in possible future challenges and nothing to restrict me — but me. I loved the small town-ness of the whole experience, the friendliness, the amazingly committed volunteers out there for over 14 hours, the route, the Ultra sweatshirt I wear with pride, the finish – oh, how I loved the finish!

I have spent the last 5 months pushing the thoughts of the 100km racers out of my head and, until yesterday, I’ve been mostly successful. Now I’m at a cross roads moving forward with a brand new training experience leading to a brand new athlete label for 2017. 2018 though, um, I’ll be 55 and that could require a few really big new challenges. You’ll have to just wait and see 😉

So in the car on the way home from the Niagara Ultra Jeff ask “What did you just say?!”. I immediately realized I must have used my outside voice as I was hatching up a new goal, “It would be a real shame to waste my fitness and not do what I really love to do, climb mountains”. It is the reason I run apparently.

I wonder if I could get time off work?  Where would I go?


10 thoughts on “53 at 53 – My 1st Ultra Marathon

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